When you enter Matt Toof’s 6th Grade Social Studies classroom on a debate day, excitement and energy are front-and-center, along with a hefty emphasis on the development of Transferable Skills.


This year, all teachers and students in FWSU are working to deepen their understanding of proficiency in the area of Effective Communication. Teachers across the district are “scaling up” their learning tasks in key content areas in order to produce evidence of growing proficiency in important performance indicators. The 6th graders in this class at GEMS are regularly demonstrating this important evidence in a context that is relevant, authentic, and highly engaging.

poiont clarityAmidst of sea of dresses, collared shirts, and even some ties (these students take debate days very seriously), the chatter of students’ rehearsal of key points is quieted briefly as Mr. Toof sets the expectations for the debate. This includes a clear and concise review of the skills that students have learned, practiced, and will apply. These skills represent a comprehensive teaching and learning design integrating key social studies, ELA, and speaking and listening standards. Students have spent considerable time reading a Junior Scholastic article (anchor text that frames the resolution for them), researching, discussing, and getting claims and counter-claims set up and backed up by multi-media representations of evidence. After the experience, they produce a written response. As Matt says, the class is a “double dose of literacy” for the students.

I'd like to sayOn this particular day, the required resolution is: Should celebrities endorse junk food? Following words of encouragement to both the affirmative and negative teams from Mr. Toof, the two sides (inclusive of all class members) “huddle up” in opposite corners of the room for one final review of their well-planned positions and to decide who will deliver the Constructive (introductory) Speech.

something to say

iPads at the ready for referencing key points and fact-checking, the debate begins. Instantly lively, the thrill of rebuttal sends hands shooting up as each point is made. Mr. Toof suggests, although still early in the year, that the class is ready to use their skills to be patient and take respectful turns without raising hands. The students’ accountability increases as the debate continues. The suggestion is met with success. Student agency grows.

backing it upDuring the process, Mr. Toof records criteria-based evidence for each student. And there is plenty to record. Students quote the article, build on each other’s ideas, rebut various points through both questioning and elaboration, challenge and defend sources, and project several forms of evidence on Apple TV. Throughout, Matt continues to coach, providing just-in-time feedback that moves the debate forward.

sum it up

As the class period draws to a close, final arguments and two-word summaries are presented. Student voice has taken center stage, a stage that has been set by the students themselves. As one of the students shared, ” This helps us a lot. We learn how to mark up text, how to collaborate, and how to prove our points with evidence in a fun, friendly way.” That about sums up what I observed: students’ hearts and minds purposefully engaged in this powerful performance task. No debating that!

FWSU Action Plan

Target 2 – Leadership in a Student-Centered Learning Environment FWSU will foster development of teacher & student leaders who provide innovative. opportunities for local and global student-centered learning

Action Step – Develop learning habits, communication, and problem-solving skills necessary for collaborative learning and leadership.

Indicator of Success – Student voice will have the power to impact the perceptions of others.



Linda Keating is the Director of Curriculum at FWSU. She is a regular contributor to the FWSU Blog. You can follow her on Twitter @Educate4ward

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